Film

The Creator: Could AI have generated Gareth Edwards' gorgeous new sci-fi blockbuster?

If you fed Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and E.T. into an AI generator you might get something like The Creator, but would it have the humanity?

A scene still from 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR, set in an AI future.

The Creator: an AI take on “skinny robot in Tibetan monk robes”? Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

It has taken Rogue One: A Star Wars Story director Gareth Edwards seven years to complete his next film – but the timing has turned out to be impeccable.

If you have gleaned anything from the cryptic PR campaign for The Creator it is probably that this sweeping sci-fi epic is about one of the buzziest subjects of 2023: the world-changing miracle and/or looming existential threat of artificial intelligence (AI).

Somewhere a marketing department is breathing a huge sigh of relief because trying to generate hype for a would-be blockbuster that is not an adaptation, sequel or reboot of existing IP can seem like an impossible mission. But the AI hook is a slippery one.

Despite being set on Earth 50 years in the future, The Creator is mostly concerned with what you might call old-fashioned ideas about artificial intelligence. This is not really about the current proliferation of chat bots. The advanced AI in question has already been decanted into robot bodies, from purely mechanical droids to “simulants” who look eerily human except for the empty Pringles tube where their ears should be.

From Frankenstein to Blade Runner, we love a tangible automaton or replicant. Perhaps it is just easier to wrestle with AI issues – do sentient machines have a soul, can they fall in love, do they have the right to strike if they are being exploited? – when there is something there to physically grapple with.

The Creator depicts a world where a vengeful US has not just banned AI but actively seeks to wipe it out using a terrifying orbital missile platform that can strike anywhere in the world. But the AIs that are thriving in Asia and elsewhere are rumoured to have developed a devastating weapon of their own. John David Washington – no stranger to being the human face of slightly convoluted blockbusters after Tenet – is an ex-soldier caught up in it all, with a cute little moppet in tow.

It is an absolutely gorgeous looking film, imagining a casually miraculous but plausible future where technology has reached every single corner of the world, from rural rice paddies to towering future-cities. It takes that grimy, slightly battered feel of the best Star Wars and applies it artfully to Earth.

In The Creator, existing tech is often cleverly repurposed, and it can seem like there is some thrifty recycling in the plot too. It takes the imagined bummer ending of Terminator 2: Judgment Day as its starting point and chucks in a squad of badass marines from Aliens (led, brilliantly, by Allison Janney from The West Wing). It also clearly owes a debt to Spielberg’s early 2000s tech-anxiety diptych of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.

Edwards revealed his own list of filmic touchstones, including Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, anime classic Akira and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. (He also cites Rain Man, conman-and-kid caper Paper Moon and non-narrative 1992 documentary Baraka as perhaps more unexpected influences.)

To take a reductive view, if you fed all these existing films into an AI text generator and asked it to blurp out a sci-fi thriller script set in the 2060s, it might come up with something not a million miles away from The Creator. (You could also try the prompt “Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child but make it cyberpunk”.)

Taken in isolation, some of the film’s vistas also feel like they could be the product of an AI bot like DALL·E 2 or Midjourney if someone typed in “skinny robot in Tibetan monk robes” or “intimidating orbital weapon that must look legally distinct from a Death Star”.

But despite the fact that every frame has been augmented by technology of some kind, The Creator succeeds because of its human touches. It helps when you have soulful actors like Washington, Janney, Gemma Chan and Ken Watanabe imbuing their characters with warmth and scrappy humanity.

If sections of the plot might feel familiar, there are plenty of clever, unexpected and genuinely funny moments in the script. And everyone involved in crafting the vivid setting – from Edwards and his co-writer Chris Weitz to the dozens of CG concept and visual artists who imagined this hauntingly beautiful world of integrated tech – have done it with real care, craft and love. That gives us humans the edge over AI for now. But let’s check back in when The Creator 2: Electric Boogaloo looms.

The Creator is in cinemas from 28 September.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. @GraemeVirtue

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